I spent several hours yesterday afternoon participating in a fresh cheesemaking class at award-winning Sweet Grass Dairy. I’ve loved their cheeses for years, and if you ever get the chance to taste them, do it! I love their Asher Blue, phenomenal tangy chevre, and milky Thomasville Tomme. And their Black Swan? It has a foodie cult following! The Littles, Jeremy and Jessica, are second-generation sustainable farmers located in beautiful Thomasville, Georgia. They raise happy goats, and happy goats make great cheese! Sweet Grass Dairy uses rotational grazing methods and a holistic approach to making their artisan cheeses. Each step in the process is done with care and respect, from grazing the goats, to milking them, to packaging their cheeses and shipping them. I love to visit their beautiful little cheese shop in quaint downtown Thomasville, not only for their exquisite cheeses, but also for their wonderful wine selections and accompaniments like local honeys and olive oils, authentic Serrano ham, olives, organic whey-fed pork, and more!
Like most really great foods, cheese was born of necessity. It is a way of preserving milk (yet oh, so much more!). And like most really great foods, cheese only has a few ingredients–milk, an acidifier or culture, such as lemon juice or flora danica, a coagulant such as rennet, and salt. Basically, all cheeses are made from these simple ingredients. It is the variables of the processes used–temperature and aging, for instance, that make each cheese unique. Isn’t that amazing?
At our class, we went through the steps to make a fresh cow’s cheese, old-world style. We tasted some fabulous cheeses and peeked into the spotless cooler and cheesemaking room. The tangy aroma of freshly made chevre draining wafted through the classroom. And then we made fresh ricotta cheese. It is so much fun and so easy to make that I encourage you to try it. I made some in my kitchen this afternoon, and it is delicious. This recipe is adapted from Jeremy Little of Sweet Grass Dairy.
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
One gallon cold whole, organic milk
One quart cold organic buttermilk
Juice of about three lemons
Heavy stainless steel stock pot
It is essential to clean and sanitize all your equipment and the area in which you are working. I took this as an opportunity to give my kitchen a good, thorough cleaning, with hot, soapy water and a little bleach. Make sure to rinse everything well in cool water. You don’t want your cheese to taste like bleach. Okay, now for the fun part!
Combine the cold milk and buttermilk in the stockpot and slowly heat the mixture over low heat. Don’t rush it. Stir the mixture occasionally to prevent the milk from scalding and promote even heating. Heat the milk to a temperature of 160 degrees. It took me about 15-20 minutes to heat the milk to the appropriate temperature.
Once the mixture has reached 160 degrees, remove it from the heat, and slowly drizzle in the lemon juice, just a splash or two, while stirring the milk at the same time. Be gentle! Stir just until you see curds begin to float on the surface of the milk. I did not need to use all the lemon juice. Using a slotted spoon, gently remove the curds and transfer them to a colander that is lined in cheesecloth. The whey will slowly drain through the cheesecloth, leaving the beautiful curds of cheese. I drained the very nutritious whey into a big bowl and saved it, because it is reportedly excellent for acid-loving plants in the garden! The cooled whey will be going on my citrus trees and blueberry bushes later today.
Once the whey has fully drained from your cheese (about 15 minutes), add some kosher salt. Add a teaspoon or so at a time, mix it in well (I used my gloved hand) and taste it. I added almost three teaspoons of salt. At this point, you may also add herbs if you’d like. Try a little bit of fresh minced rosemary or thyme. I ended up with about two pounds of fresh, organic ricotta cheese.
Store your fresh cheese in an airtight container in the refrigerator, and enjoy it as soon as possible. Or pretend you’re an artisan cheesemaker, and wrap it in fresh, clean fig leaves for a beautiful presentation. I’m told that ricotta freezes well, but I have not yet tried that myself. Use ricotta to stuff shells or ravioli, in an amazing lasagne, or as the base for Italian cheesecake. Slice some fresh fruit over a spoonful, and drizzle it with honey for breakfast. It’s a truly enjoyable foodie experience! Thanks to Jeremy at Sweet Grass Dairy for a wonderful cheesemaking class.